Advice on Adopting an Adult Rescue Dog

Can I find a reliable family dog at the shelter?
By Karen B. London PhD, November 2019
Adoptable dog Coqueta (Oakland Animal Shelter oaklandanimalservices.org)

Adoptable dog Coqueta (Oakland Animal Shelter oaklandanimalservices.org)

Adoptable dog Flash (Rocket Dog Rescue rocketdogrescue.org)

Adoptable dog Flash (Rocket Dog Rescue rocketdogrescue.org)

Adoptable dog Sassy (Muddy Paws Rescue muddypawsrescue.org)

Adoptable dog Sassy (Muddy Paws Rescue muddypawsrescue.org)

Adoptable dog Alexandra Cabot (badassbrooklynanimalrescue.com)

Adoptable dog Alexandra Cabot (badassbrooklynanimalrescue.com)

Dear Bark: We really want to adopt a young-adult shelter dog but are concerned about socialization issues. Without information about a dog’s early life, how do we know if the one we choose can be trained to be a good, reliable family dog? We hear that the first eight weeks of a dog's life is so important, but not knowing that, could it be too late?

—Ready to Adopt

Cheers for shelter adoptions and three cheers for adopting an adult dog from a shelter! Millions of people have adopted their best friend from a shelter as an adult (dog), and there’s every reason to believe that you can find you can, too.

It’s true that the experiences dogs have in their first few months of life are very important, but that should not discourage you. Genetics also play a huge role in dogs’ personalities, and it’s the interplay between genes and experiences that determines who a dog becomes. That interplay takes years to form the individual dogs we know and love. Interestingly, it also means that it’s hard to predict how any puppy will turn out because they have so much developing and living to do before we know what they are really about. With an adult dog, you have a pretty good idea that what you see is what you get.

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The takeaway here is that when you go to a shelter to find the right dog for you, you will be meeting adult dogs who are closer than puppies to having the fully formed personality you will live with for the rest of their lives. That said, dogs of every age require some training to become polite canine members of society. With that in mind, don’t worry if a dog you like doesn’t yet have every skill she needs. All dogs need to be is house trained and learn to greet people without jumping up and to walk nicely on a leash. Older dogs can easily learn new tricks, and they often have a head start with their training which is an advantage of adopting an adult instead of a puppy. Many are house trained, and it’s common for adults to know the basics: how to sit, enter a car, wait at doors or how to shake, for example.

Welcoming a dog of any age, no matter what the situation, will always involve some degree of crossing your paws and hoping for the best. Dogs continue to change, and they act differently in different contexts. Whether you are talking about puppies or adult dogs, you won’t see the full range of their behavior in a shelter because that environment is so different than your home and all they will encounter there. Like any relationship, at some point, you just have to take the plunge. That said, it is still crucial to choose wisely, and not on a whim.

What should you look for when it comes to choosing a reliable family dog? A good family dog is friendly and comfortable with people and with dogs, so pay attention to the shelter staff’s assessments. For each dog you consider adopting, ask specifically how she is with other dogs and with people, and listen to what the shelter staff have to say. If they tell you that she’s shy or that she needs to be in a home without other pets or without kids, take that seriously.

Pay attention to how the dog acts when you meet her, but don’t assume it will be love at first sight on her end. Many people have tales of a beloved dog who seemed to be bonded to a shelter worker or foster person and wanted to stay with that person more than they wanted to go with someone new. That’s actually a good sign because it indicates that the dog is capable of forming strong social bonds. Many people end their story by sharing how quickly and completely the dog bonded to them that night or over their first few days together.

To minimize unwelcome surprises later on, do everything you can to familiarize yourself with any dog you are considering. One option may be fostering, which will give you more time to get to know her and decide if she’s a good match.

Many people assume that as long as you get a puppy, you can guarantee how that individual turns out as an adult, but that’s not true at all. Similarly, it’s a common but erroneous belief that only dogs who are in their first home as puppies can become good, reliable family dogs. Most dogs have a genetic heritage that gives them the resilience to develop into absolutely wonderful dogs, even if their start in life isn’t ideal. It’s one of the many biological wonders that make our best friends such an amazing species.

So, the short answer (which I expanded on considerably), is that it is not too late. Much more goes into a great relationship than the age at which it starts. So many lovely and amazing dogs are in shelters, and that includes countless adults. One of them is sure to be the treasure you are seeking.

—Karen

Editor’s Note: For an excellent source on adopting adult dogs do see the book that Karen London and Patricia McConnell wrote “Love Has No Age Limit”, it’s very useful and an easy read. All dogs pictured were available for adoption at the time of posting.

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She has authored five books on canine training and behavior.

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